Pakistan’s rich diversity of historical and natural landscapes makes it an exciting destination for adventure travellers and so Muhammad Rehan Khan — a director at the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation with a passion for photography — took to documenting Pakistan’s heritage with a view to promoting tourism in the country. Pakistan, Heaven on Earth is the culmination of 15 years of Khan’s travel photography across 187 locations in Pakistan.

Tired by the recent noise and clutter on social media about Pakistan’s tourism scene, I was more than eager to pick up a coffee table book that would help me add to my list of places to see in the country. Pakistan, Heaven on Earth begins on the right note with a section dedicated to photography in and around Karachi. I’ve felt that conversations on Pakistan’s travel potential far too often don’t include its largest city; to illustrate, not a single place on the website Lonely Planet’s list of top 20 attractions in Pakistan is from Karachi. That said, I couldn’t help but wonder why most photos of the city featured in the book are of architectural landmarks dating to the colonial era. A megacity that represents the collective hopes and fears of an estimated 20 million Pakistanis surely has far a richer visual vocabulary. In the rest of Sindh, Khan takes us through shrines, temples, forts and the palaces of regional kingdoms. Each photo is accompanied by a brief caption that mentions the history — and occasionally the present condition — of the locations. A stunning photograph of the Varun Dev Mandir on Manora Island convinced me to plan a visit to it when I’m in Karachi next, and I was happy to learn through the photo description that efforts are currently underway to restore the temple.

In the rest of the book, the author takes us across natural and architectural landscapes across Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) through the lens of his camera.

A coffee table book provides scintillating images that can help promote tourism to the country, but could have benefited from more insightful accompanying text

Khan organises Pakistan’s architectural heritage into four classifications: pre-Islamic, Islamic, colonial and post-colonial. The pre-Islamic architecture covered includes Hindu temples in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan; Gandharan Buddhist sites in northern Pakistan; Jain temples in Nagarparkar and Indus Valley sites. Although interest in Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu heritage in Pakistan has rekindled thanks to recent state-led efforts to promote religious tourism, the country’s rich Jain heritage is yet to receive the same level of public interest. The author’s photos of intricately designed Jain temples set against the desolate landscape of Nagarparkar are a visual treat.

Several structures dating to the Mughal era, Sufi shrines, and forts and palaces associated with local kingdoms have been covered in the book as examples of regional Islamic architecture. I was happy to see the author’s focus on the heritage of the local princely states; although princely states account for nearly 40 per cent of the landmass of the subcontinent, they have not received adequate scholarly attention in Pakistani historiography. Pakistan, Heaven on Earth also offers us interesting visuals of the palaces and forts held by the rulers of Khairpur, Bahawalpur, Chitral and Hunza.

Khan’s photography of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit Baltistan, AJK and Balochistan focuses primarily on natural landscapes. Photographs of nearly 70 scenic locations in the Karakoram, the Himalayan and the Hindukush mountain ranges are evidence of the author’s familiarity with remote locations in northern Pakistan. I really enjoyed the section on Balochistan’s beaches, topography and rock structures, and made notes to plan a trip to Chandragup, the 300-foot-tall mud volcano in Balochistan revered by Hindus as sacred ground.

While I was impressed by the author’s skilful photography, I couldn’t help thinking that a compelling written narrative would have made Pakistan, Heaven on Earth a more interesting read. The author mentions briefly in the preface how an accident on a horseback journey near Fairy Meadows exposed him to the risks posed by weak infrastructure in the region. When I started reading the book, I had hoped to come across more such insights that were grounded in the veteran traveller’s personal experiences. Instead, the captions accompanying each photo — the only text in the book — are painfully generic at times; for example, Kund Malir in Balochistan is described as “considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world with a calm, peaceful and soothing environment.” It would have been good had the captions been phrased better, especially considering the premium price of the book.

Lonely Planet, the world’s premier travel guide publisher, describes Pakistan as “the difficult child of South Asia — blessed with abundant natural and historical riches, but plagued by political instability, which has kept the country off the radar for all but the most hardened explorers.” As normalcy returns to Pakistan, visual storytelling is a powerful way to engage with domestic and international audiences for tourism. Khan’s book is a rich pictorial catalogue of attractions across the diverse country and should interest seasoned travellers as well as everyday readers looking to connect with Pakistan’s heritage.

The reviewer is the founder of the Indus Heritage Club, an Islamabad-based company that is working to promote Pakistan as a destination for Sikh heritage tourism

Pakistan, Heaven on Earth
By Muhammad Rehan Khan
Well Books, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 12th, 2019